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19 October 2022

From Anthony Quinn to Andrey Kurkov: recent books reviewed in short

Also featuring No Choice: Becca Andrews on the right to abortion, and Servants of the Damned by David Enrich.

By Pippa Bailey, Megan Gibson, Oscar Williams and Michael Prodger

No Choice: The Fall of Roe v Wade and the Fight to Protect the Right to Abortion by Becca Andrews
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 256pp, £16.99

You could call the publication of No Choice, just three months after the overturning of Roe vs Wade in the US, a piece of lucky scheduling. Or you could see it as vindication: Becca Andrews was right not to dismiss the mounting threats against the constitutional right to abortion as scaremongering. No Choice began as a cover story for the American magazine Mother Jones, where Andrews was formerly a reporter. She begins with a revealing history of abortion worldwide, from Socrates’s mother, Phaenarete, a sort of ancient Greek obstetrician, to the South American Wichí tribe, who reportedly abort all first pregnancies as a matter of course. “For as long as people could get pregnant,” Andrews writes, “they have sought ways to control their reproductive lives with contraceptive practices and abortion care.”

The rest of No Choice is concerned with abortion care in the US in the past century. Andrews shares the devastating and rousing stories of the people on the front lines, from doctors to patients, campaigners to senators. Most chillingly, her accounts of underground abortion services before Roe vs Wade in 1973 – provided by groups such as the Army of Three and the Jane Collective – now seem an indication of what is to come.
By Pippa Bailey

Diary of an Invasion by Andrey Kurkov
Mountain Leopard Press, 304pp, £16.99

Even the closest observer of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine might be surprised to learn how Western sanctions are wreaking havoc on the dentistry field in Russia. It is little wonder, though, that the Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov, known for his keen eye for the absurdities of life, would pack his diary of the war with fascinating and eccentric details – such as the state of Russian soldiers’ teeth – that one wouldn’t come across in a newspaper.

In Kurkov’s account, which begins in December 2021 during the build-up of Russian forces along Ukraine’s border and ends in July 2022 as the war grinds on, life in a war zone is both bloody and banal, agonising and absurd. Several of his accounts are drawn from essays published in recent months (including in this magazine), and include passages on death, destruction and displacement. Yet what makes Kurkov’s diary memorable is its departures into the more quotidian: gossip-filled trips to the sauna, Ukraine’s morale-boosting victory in the Eurovision Song Contest, ruminations on the status of Ukrainian literature amid paper shortages, and ploys to protect animals in the country’s shuttered zoos.
By Megan Gibson

Servants of the Damned: Giant Law Firms and the Corruption of Justice by David Enrich
Scribe, 384pp, £20

Since the turn of the 20th century, few professions have undergone a more radical transformation than American law. Lawyers were once lone operators whose days were largely spent representing citizens in local courts. In the first half of the century, however, these self-employed practitioners joined forces, forming corporate partnerships that would redefine what it meant to be a lawyer in the United States.

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America’s largest law firms still defend their work in the original terms, arguing that everyone has the right to counsel. But as the New York Times’s David Enrich writes in his latest book, this liberty has been warped far beyond its constitutional purpose. He illustrates this unsightly metamorphosis through the tale of Jones Day, one of the most profitable US firms, which now sits at the nexus of corporate and political power. Its lawyers have represented the Trump campaign, Russian oligarchs, the Catholic Church and more than half of the Fortune 500. Enrich’s stories provide a disturbing window into how the rules underpinning democracy have been weaponised by those meant to protect it.
By Oscar Williams

Molly and the Captain by Anthony Quinn
Abacus, 432pp, £16.99

Molly and the Captain were the nicknames the painter Thomas Gainsborough gave to his two surviving daughters, Mary and Margaret. He painted their double portrait five times and doted on them. It didn’t help; their lives after his death were unhappy ones. Two daughters of a Georgian painter, Molly and Laura Merrymount, are the central figures of the first part of Anthony Quinn’s latest novel, and, through a lost portrait, live on to reverberate in lives far into the future. The first to feel the shortness of time passed are Paul Stransom, a Victorian plein air artist, and his sister Margaret, and then, a century later, Nell Cantrip, another painter, and mother of two daughters. 

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Tone in such a three-parter is everything and Quinn is an accomplished writer at ease with the idioms of the past. He is also a subtle creator of character and deftly uses the double portrait of Molly and the Captain as a poignant device not just to link disparate lives, but as a way to open up timeless themes of family, success and love. The result is both satisfying and affecting.
By Michael Prodger

[See also: Booker winner Shehan Karunatilaka: “You don’t know who you’re going to offend”]

This article appears in the 19 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency